This a picture of Daniel. He has been living on the streets for longer than he can remember. When I brought him hot cross buns, he told me he preferred if I brought him some Red Heart Rum next time.
It is easy to live inside a bubble. As a mother, I have realised that you tend to start avoiding news stories about children who are terminally sick or suffer. You try to avoid these stories, and yet they catch your eye in the newspapers and online. However, it is still easy to feel disconnected from it; you can scroll past quickly and just forget about it.
Around the corner from our house, I often see a family on the grass embankment at my off-ramp, not begging, just sitting and often sleeping. They have a small baby and I was reduced to tears the other day seeing this small little soul lying on a piece of cardboard covered in a blanket and a yellow beanie, while the mom spoons the girl, the father not too far away, his face covered by a jacket. I remember there was a fresh breeze on that day, the first sign that summer was fading, and I was wondering where this baby will sleep tonight. Does the baby have enough food?
On another occasion, the mom is playing with the baby, the little girl is laughing. A mother’s love. I drive faster to get home to my own little human being, so I can cuddle, kiss, and tickle her. My world, my bubble. Should I have stopped, should I have asked what their situation is? In my mind, all I can do is phone the authorities, in the hope that social workers will come and help this family.
The point is that it is easy to live in a bubble, but the longer you stay in there, the easier it gets to forget your privilege. Safely transported in your warm single user vehicle, shouting at the taxi driver who cuts you off, while transporting a dozen or more people who have no option but to get into that taxi because of fear of being late, and the trains are just not working. Moaning about the fibre installation at your home, which is just taking too long, because you just have to Netflix and chill. Small little irritations (like potty training the toddler!) become bigger because it keeps bouncing off that bubble, and the walls of the bubble get thicker the longer you remain inside.
On the corner near our house, there are a few vagrants begging at the traffic lights. They make a mess, we call the City, we write to our councillor, careful not to leave the bubble. A woman called Betty was part of this group. I only found out her name afterwards. One day Betty started lying under a blanket on a patch of grass during the day, we thought she was sleeping off the booze from the night before. This went on for a few days, and for a split second, it crossed my mind, maybe we should phone the ambulance, maybe she is sick. The thought quickly passed however, because other matters were demanding my attention, my world, my bubble.
One evening I saw the red flashing lights of an ambulance. Betty had died the night before, possibly from TB complications. Her story had not started this way. Speaking to Vanessa, one of our civil activist’s in the neighbourhood who runs a “clean streets crew” made up of street people, Betty appears to have left her family behind in Upington in the Northern Cape with the promise of a job as a domestic worker. However, she left the job after suffering abuse from her employer. With no money to return home, she started a life on the street. Vanessa says when she first met Betty, she was struck by how proud she was, introducing herself as “Betty, Betty Bosman”. Vanessa even started the process with the Council to help Betty get back home, but the process eventually hit a dead end.
Perhaps, if I had trusted my gut and phoned the ambulance on that day when I saw her lying there, Betty could have received treatment. Perhaps if I had shown more empathy. It is easy to feel helpless, and it is hard to know what to do to help.
There are however small steps we can all take to show humanity to our fellow South Africans. My first personal move will be to climb out of my privileged bubble more often, to acknowledge others. To show empathy, is after all what makes us truly human.
Liesl Smit – Senior Reporter and Anchor, Smile90.4 FM News